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01 July 2013

Fracking Luddites, Enough Already!

Luddites of the World, Unite!

By Daniel Hannan

You'd think Greens would be delighted by the shale gas bounty under our feet. Here is a plentiful energy supply which does not emit soot (as coal does), nor jam estuaries (as tidal turbines do), nor starve Africans (as biofuels do), nor slaughter rare birds (as wind farms do). It does not require public subsidies (as both nuclear and renewables do). On the contrary, it will generate a healthy stream of tax revenue for the Exchequer. It will diminish our reliance on nasty regimes, from Tehran to Moscow – precisely the sorts of regimes that Greens march against. Oh, and it will reduce our carbon emissions, by displacing coal in electricity generators.

What, then, is the problem? Some campaigners talk of water pollution; others, a touch histrionically, of earthquakes. If either was a remotely serious prospect, we'd know by now. There has been a great deal of fracking in the United States, but not a single instance of groundwater being contaminated. As for earthquakes, well, yes, technically any tremor qualifies as an earthquake, but the kind caused by fracking is, according to the most comprehensive report to date, “about the same as the impact caused by dropping a bottle of milk”. The process has been pronounced safe by the Royal Academy of Engineering and by the Royal Society.

Of course, people are more prepared to believe the worst when they live in the areas likely to be affected. And, there's no denying it, fracking will cause some disruption in the early stages, as all construction projects do. There will be lorries and workmen and general bustle. These things, though, are never as bad as opponents claim – just as, to be fair, the jobs are never as numerous as supporters claim. In any event, both the jobs and the disruption will be temporary. The gains will outweigh the inconveniences a thousand times over – and I say so as MEP for a region that will be more affected than most.

This morning's headlines warn us of electricity rationing and coming blackouts. Fracking won't just solve that problem; it will drag us back to growth, much as it has the United States. The find has come, fortuitously, at the very moment that North Sea oil and, especially, gas reserves deplete. We already have the gas infrastructure in place. Now it turns out that we are sitting on the largest shale hoard in Europe. It seems almost providential.

In much the same way, our distant fathers found a way to access almost unlimited amounts of coal just as Britain was beginning its eighteenth century expansion. In consequence, the industrial revolution happened here rather than in, say, China or Italy. We became the greatest and wealthiest nation on Earth. Coal is why the world speaks our language.

But here's the difference. Despite the horrible dangers of eighteenth-century coalmining – pit collapses, floods, explosive gas – the industry was allowed to develop, gradually becoming safer and cleaner. In our own age, by contrast, an industry safer and cleaner than even the safest and cleanest coalmines is threatened by a coalition of envious Eurocrats and Greens.

I can just about see what's upsetting the Eurocrats: they don't like capitalism, they don't like fossil fuels and they don't like Britain. Green objections are harder to understand: here is a clean, secure supply of power that will benefit everyone, but will disproportionately benefit the least well off, who spend a higher proportion of their income on energy bills. When I spoke in the European Parliament in support of fracking, most of the negative comments I received did not focus on specific safety concerns. Rather, they complained in general terms that fracking would 'poison the planet' or 'bleed Mother Earth' for no higher cause than 'greed'.

What is meant here by 'greed' is the desire for material improvement that has driven every advance since the old stone age. Someone sees an opportunity to offer a service that other people will pay for and, in consequence, wealth is created where none existed before. What happened with coal in the eighteenth century could happen again now: prices will fall, productivity will increase, and people will be released to new jobs, raising living standards for everyone. 'Greed', in this sense, is why we still have teeth after the age of 30, why women no longer expect to die in childbirth, why we have coffee and computers and cathedrals. 'Greed' is why we have time to listen to Beethoven and go for country walks and play with our children. Cheaper energy, on any measure, improves our quality of life.

But this is precisely what at least some Greens object to. What they want, as they frankly admit, is decarbonisation, deindustrialisation and depopulation. They regard the various advances we've made since the old stone age – the coffee, the computers, the cathedrals – with regret. What society needs, they tell us, is not green consumerism, but less consumerism. Which is, of course, precisely what most Western countries have had since 2008. The crash brought about all the things that eco-warriors had been demanding: lower GDP, less consumption, a decline in international trade. Yet, oddly, when it happened, they didn't seem at all satisfied. There's no pleasing some people.

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